The Columbian Exchange

Travel between the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and the New World (North and South America and the Caribbean islands) was ignited by the journey of Christopher Columbus and his three ships in 1492. Contemporary historians have come to describe the results of those journeys as the Columbian Exchange. Plants and animals and people were relocated; ideas and diseases also crossed the ocean. All five continents were changed by the new things that arrived as a result of this European Age of Exploration.

As Europeans colonized the New World, they brought many of their old plants and animals with them. The traditional barnyard of North America contains creatures familiar from European farms: horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and even honeybees were brought to North America. About the only North American animal to be raised in Europe in large numbers was the turkey. Colonists also brought apples, wheat, oats, rice, and assorted garden vegetables and herbs; further south they established sugarcane, bananas, oranges, lemons, and coffee. But New World plants also had a significant impact upon the Old World, with the introduction of maize (which North Americans call corn), potatoes, sugar maples, rubber, tobacco, vanilla, and cocoa. At first the tomato was thought to be a poisonous berry—parts of the plant are poisonous, and some people are allergic to tomatoes. But some brave person found that tomatoes are good to eat; this North American plant met the Chinese invention called pasta in southern Europe, and “traditional” Italian food such as spaghetti and lasagna was born.

People also crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Some were European conquerors seeking wealth; others were European laborers seeking work and new opportunities. Among the later group were peons, workers who went into debt to make the voyage, then spent their earnings to pay off their debt. When lenders increased the debt (charging for food, lodging, clothing, tools and medical care) faster than the peons could earn money to pay the debt, they were stuck in virtual slavery. Most slaves in the New World, though, were imported from Africa. Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans entered the Americas than Europeans. Twelve million Africans were sold into slavery on the Atlantic coast of Africa, usually by their fellow Africans. Nine million Africans survived the trip and were sold again in the Americas. Shippers treated the horrific loss of human life during the voyage as an acceptable business loss.

As diseases had traveled along the Silk Roads, so they also crossed the ocean. Smallpox, measles, and other sicknesses known in the eastern hemisphere met a population without resistance, and millions of native Americans died. Entire civilizations that met one group of Europeans disappeared before a second European group visited their homes decades later. Disease traveled so rapidly that smallpox had reached the Inca Empire of Pacific South America before the first European ships arrived there. Although sexually transmitted diseases had been known in the Old World since ancient times, a more virulent form of syphilis appeared almost immediately after the first European travelers returned to their homes after their voyages.

Europeans brought to the New World a concept of private property that was foreign to many native Americans. Tribal groups did not comprehend the meaning of some of the treaties they signed with the new settlers. Europeans also brought Christianity to the Americas. In some areas, missionaries worked patiently with the native population, seeking to convert people through preaching of the Word. In other areas, conversion was more violent. Spanish overlords forced the Aztecs and other native tribes to tear apart the pagan temples in their cities and to build Roman Catholic cathedrals. The overlords and priests were pleased to see the local population bowing in respect to the altar and to the statues of Jesus and Mary; the Spanish did not know that the builders had smuggled images of their pagan gods into the churches and altars, but the local population knew. In other parts of the New World, pagan religions and Christian faith combined into new religions such as Voodoo and Santeria.

Five hundred years ago, globalization took the form of the Columbian Exchange. Interactions between and among cultures continues into the present, with many European, Asian, and African influences at work in the Americas and many American influences at work in the rest of the world. J.

4 thoughts on “The Columbian Exchange

  1. Your history lessons are so good important for us. Knowing the many details of our past can help to shape our future. Thanks for your research and knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

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